Acorn Jelly

Your mother is a rose curling into itself. Water spilt from a wayward glass, dripping through your braced fingers. Golden sky giving way to dusk.

“She hasn’t been eating well,” the nurse says. Poached chicken, lentil soup, applesauce. Oatmeal, boiled eggs, skim milk. Most of them rejected. For the next visit, you buy her favorites: abalone porridge, acorn jelly, ripe mangoes.

Your mother is a dandelion, waiting for the next breeze. Once blown, the wisps will scatter, bobbing in farewell. An existence reduced to seeds. She turns to the window, hopeful. You think, not yet. The sight of her scalp, peeking through silver wings of hair, scorches your throat. Your heart clatters to the mottled tiles in shards. You are dying (please let it be true, that you may go before her). But no, it is just grief.

“Umma, it’s Soo-young,” you say. She meets your gaze with gentle eyes. You long for a greeting, a story, a recollection that will not come, lost in the maze of her mind.

You proffer a cube of acorn jelly. Her open mouth brings to mind an infant, guileless and trusting.

“I like this. What is it called?” Her voice: the whisper of autumn leaves against concrete. She gestures for another piece.


You never understood the appeal—brown and gelatinous, tasteless under its soy sauce dressing. Dog food, your classmates used to hiss in the cafeteria. You flung it into the trash, container and all. Go back to your country. Can you see anything, with those eyes? You thought you belonged in the garbage as well, safe among juice boxes and pizza crusts.

You blazed with shame as your mother crouched beneath the oaks at MacArthur Park, on the outskirts of Koreatown. Entire families slowed to watch. In Chuncheon, she was never judged for gathering acorns. Every fall, she ground and boiled their flesh to make her beloved dotori-muk for the neighbors.

“You can’t do this anymore.” You tugged at your shirt, resenting the dry afternoon heat. “Don’t we stand out enough?”

“We have new dreams,” she said. “But we don’t leave ourselves behind.”

Was it her dream to work in a liquor store, on a tired, graffiti-laden street of Los Angeles? To have customers stride in, only to falter upon seeing her face? Luck-ee Stee-rike, they would say, stretching syllables into sentences. Marl-bo-ro. The red one. You understand?

“The American Dream isn’t for us.” Your voice sliced through the still air. “We don’t belong here. I want to go home.”

Not the third-floor apartment on Normandie, where you slept beside her on a threadbare futon. Where the blank, yellowing walls reminded you daily of what you had left behind.

“So do I, Soo-young. No one said it would be easy,” she said. “Life is fluid, and we adapt however we can.”


Later, you lurked behind the bedroom door as your mother rewound her English lesson tapes, over and over. My name is Kyung-hee. How are you? Fine, thank you, and you? That will be twelve dollars and five cents. We do not have Marl-bo-ro today.

You watched as she brought home bruised fruit and meat nearing expiration. Kimchi and dried seaweed from the tiny Korean market on Wilshire, stretched into meager meals with rice.

“Appa would be proud of us,” she said every week, as she polished the frame housing your father’s photograph. Sometimes you lingered on his smiling face, wondering how to cross the rift his absence had left.

On the anniversary of his death, you helped your mother arrange bowls of radish soup and rice, the least marred of the apples, and half a grilled mackerel on the low dining table.

“It’s not our usual jesa with family,” she said, bowing over the scant offerings. “But I’m sure he’ll understand.”

You wept at the sight of her on the peeling linoleum floor, shelling acorns by moonlight. As your tears formed constellations on her skirt, she smoothed your hair and played a tune against your scalp. The rhythm of rain, the patter of a dog’s feet. Tender in a way she seldom was with you.

“Home is where you are, my ddal,” she said.


Your mother gazes at the slate of the evening sky, beyond the smudged window. Memories are lonely places, you realize, when you revisit them on your own.

“What an adventure we’ve had,” you say, touching her arm. Her skin is loose, untethered, lacking muscle underneath.

“It isn’t over yet.” She pats your hand in return. You pause, stunned, before tucking her words away for later.

Years ago, your father told you he considered the word Umma so precious, he cradled it close like a secret. Umma, he whispered during his military service, as he lay shivering and drained on his cot. Umma, he thought as he accepted your newborn self with quaking hands, afraid of your impossible fragility. Summoning his mother gave him strength when he most craved it.

Umma, you think now, she closes her eyes. Umma, as you study the lines carved into her face, the map of which you’ve memorized. Umma, as you clasp her gnarled fingers, which plaited your hair and scrubbed grime from your clothes and built a life for you.

“I’m going to MacArthur Park this weekend,” you tell her.

Your fingers will dance through the acorns to find the plumpest ones, as hers once did.

You will grind their meat into a smooth paste, to be submerged in water.

As the tannins rise, you will replace the tainted water, again and again, until at last, it runs clear.


Joanne Yi is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She is a former fiction editor of Lunch Ticket Literary Journal and a journalist for local news. Previously, she has written about the portrayal of Asian-American women in literature and the significance of writing about illness, pain, and grief. She is currently working on a YA novel and a series of short stories.